Treasure finds: Bronze bells and magical mirrors

Bronze tools and objects were imported and cast and were greatly sought after as prestige goods and status symbols.

Bronze mirror from Gunma Prefecture (Tokyo National Museum)

Bronze mirror from Gunma Prefecture (Tokyo National Museum)

Bronze mirrors were handed down as family heirlooms and buried in graves; bronze bells were the most treasured items and the Yayoi people over time collected and made larger and larger ones, sometimes ten times larger than those seen in Chinese mainland or Korean peninsula.

Bronze bell from Uzumoridai, Kobe city (Photographed at the Tokyo National Museum)

Bronze bell from Uzumoridai, Kobe city 2nd-1st century B.C.                                (Tokyo National Museum)

The largest cache of buried bronze treasure ever discovered was found from two pits at Kojindani in Shimane prefecture: 358 bronze swords, 16 bronze spearheads and 6 bronze bells or dotaku (in Japanese).

Bronze treasures found buried in graves of persons of high status are unusual and rare and are seen only in northern Kyushu. It is still a mystery as to why most bronze treasures are found most often in places faraway from settlement sites and graves from Kyushu to the Chubu district. The bronze treasures were possibly buried in an emergency due to enemy attack or as magical safeguards at the boundaries of their world.

At first, the Yayoi people made bronze objects in the Korean tradition, however, they soon began to produce them in unique Japanese forms. One strikingly unique bronze object indigenous to Japan is the tomoe bronze cog-wheel ornament (resembling the ninja shuriken weapon but probably copied from the shape of the Harpago chiragra seashell bracelet) that was used to decorate shields and other objects. The tomoe/shuriken ornaments were found in Kyushu, Shikoku and the Kinai region.

Tomoe shield ornaments, Tokyo National Museum

Tomoe shield ornaments, Tokyo National Museum

Who rang the bronze bells?

Bronze Bells were especially treasured by the Yayoi people — they were regarded as cult objects, ceremonial treasures. When the Japanese began to make the bells themselves, they made them bigger and better, and sometimes ten times larger than the Korean originals. They were probably then displayed prominently on some kind of platform or hung from a tree. Although the first bells were inspired by the Korean bronze bells and could be rung, later bells lost their original function.

Why were there so many bronze bells?

Bronze bells are called dotaku in Japanese. At present over 430 bells have been discovered, mainly from the Kinki Region, of which about 40 were found in Tokushima Prefecture and 39 were found at one site alone at Kamoiwakura, in Shimane prefecture (the largest number ever found). The Kamoiwakura bells were decorated with pictures of deer and dragonflies. They are thought to have been used in rites for worshipping the god that makes rice grow.

The Korean-type small-sized bell from the Korean continent probably inspired the typical dotaku with the characteristic shape found in Yayoi Japan. Small horse bells called bataku usually not longer than 10 cm,  were discovered at Kasuga city (three) in Fukuoka prefecture, a site at Usa city (one) Oita prefecture. They are thought to have been imported from Korea.

Early bells were hung and jingled. Then their use was changed into bells that were no longer rung. As they got larger and larger and were sometimes more ornately decorated. They were likely used for public display, it is thought, during rice farming festivals in the Yayoi Period.

Many hoards of the bronze bells were buried under the ground. 14  bells of different sizes, along with seven halberds were found on a forested ridge at Sakuragaoka-cho above the city of Kobe.

While one theory has it that the bells may have been buried during emergencies such as during hostile attacks, since the bells are usually found isolated on hill terraces above fertile fields, they were most likely buried in some ritual ceremony to ensure a good harvest.

The dotaku mysteriously disappeared fairly suddenly … coinciding with the next era when people started to construct kofun.

Magical Mirrors

The Yayoi people began to import bronze mirrors from China from the Middle Yayoi period.

Collection of Kawasaki City Museum

Two bronze mirrors were discovered inside a wooden casket from the Hananotani burial mound in the Fukui region of Japan. One of them made in the latter half of the 1st century B.C. was 9.6 cm in diameter and was decorated with patterns associated with rulers of Yayoi Japan. The second made during a later period was 22 cm in diameter bearing images of Chinese mythical beasts. Similar mirrors have been found at the Kurozuka mound in Nara and at Ishizuka mound in Fukuoka prefecture.

The Chinese style mirror called Shinjukyo (“deity and beast mirror”)  is decorated with deities and animals fro m Chinese mythology. They were frequently produced in China during the Han dynasty and during the 1st -6th centuries, but were also produced in the Lelang Chinese colony in Korea as well as in Japan. From the Records of Wei,  the first historical reference to bronze mirrors is made that the Emperor presents to Queen Himiko of Wa “one hundred bronze mirrors” among other gifts. A well-known tomb from the Yoshinogari site in Saga Prefecture contained 33 shinjukyo bronze mirrors.

Bronze mirrors, like bronze bells may have been worn around the neck during religious ceremonies to reflect the sun’s rays and to indicate the wearer’s high status. To learn more about the origin and types of Japanese and other bronze mirrors in East Asia, click here.

Bronze weapons

Bronze swords with broad blades, iron and bronze tools and weapons were a huge improvement over the obsidian or bone implements previously used. Metal was more durable and the sharp edges produced for weapons and tools made cutting tasks easier. This meant people could clear their land and reap their harvests more efficiently.

Origin of bronze

Yayoi Japan imported bronze from Korea from the end of the Early Yayoi period to the beginning of the Middle Yayoi period. Korean bronze products consisted of swords, spearheads, halberds, mirrors and small bells.

Molds from early Yayoi times have been excavated in Japan from Souza and Yoshinogari sites (in Saga prefecture), evidence that bronze tools were cast in Japan soon after imported bronze products began to arrive in Japan.

By middle Yayoi period, the Yayoi people were mostly making bronze tools and objects themselves. Moulds, mostly made of stone, from more than 60 sites have been recovered, and furnaces, moulds and bellow tuyeres were unearthed from pit-dwellings at the Yasunagata site. Large bronze bells were cast in major workshops in Yayoi Japan and then distributed over large areas – archaeologists have found bells cast from moulds at Higashinara (Osaka prefecture) but which have turned up further a field in Gahaishiyama (Kawagawa prefecture), Sakurazuka (osaka prefecture) and Kehi (Hyogo prefecture).

Lead isotope analysis gives scientists a very precise idea of where metal comes from, because the product can be matched to specimens in the mines. Experts have been able to know the following:

  • Korean imported bronze weapons and mirrors came from present-day mines in Korea;
  • Chinese imported mirrors used bronze material from northern China.
  • The earliest bronze bells made in Japan used materials of Korean origin. Thereafter, bronze bells were cast locally using raw materials in the form of lead ingots from northern China to supplement recycled bronze material. Out of 53 made in Japan mirrors, two of the oldest bells were found to be made of recycled Korean bronze, 33 were made of Chinese bronze from the Former Han period and 18 were made of bronze from the Later Han period.

Other goods that were considered prestigious to the Yayoi and therefore sought after and hoarded as status symbols were bronze weapons such as bronze swords, halberds, daggers and spearheads.

Yayoi bronze relics are concentrated in two regions: bronze weapons in north Kyushu and as far as the middle Inland Sea: and bronze bells in the eastern Inland Sea and as far east as the southern Tokai. The bronze objects overlap in the Inland Sea where both types of bronze objects can be found … indicating this was where the Tsukushi tribes of the south and the Kinki tribes of the east clashed.

Differentiated cultural zones of the Yayoi period according to artefact type

Differentiated cultural zones of the Yayoi period according to artefact type

Genetic affinities, although now remote, through population drift, suggest it might worth our while to examine possible common practices of bronze usage due to common ancestral lineages in ancient times. The population in Yunnan, like the population in Japan, share predominantly Y-DNA haplogroups D (with YAP+alleles) as well as O3 … suggesting they may have split from the same ancestral population in ancient times, possibly from  the Di-Qiang tribe(see mtDNA polymorphisms in Yunnan nationalities in China), moving southwestward to Yunnan and northeastward to Japan respectively. Furthermore, that the original ancestors of the Yunnanese lineages that made the bells, may have come from a more northerly direction and Altaic source is plausible given that researchers believe “In the SEAS, there are 14 Tibeto-Burman–speaking populations with a recorded history of migration from northern China ∼3,000 years ago (Wang 1994). The three Altai-speaking populations in Yunnan (southwestern China) were recent immigrants from northern China, <1,000 years ago (Wang 1994). Source: Y-chromosome evidence of southern origin of the East-Asian specific haplogroup O3-M122)

Yunnan contains some of China’s richest deposits of copper, lead, and tin, and  early phases of bronze metallurgy technology. By the mid-first millennium BC, however, the technology of bronze production had reached a very high level of sophistication, and bronzes played a crucial military, ritual, and social role in Dian society. It appears that a close, symbiotic relationship existed between Dian metallurgical craftsmen and their elite patrons. Present evidence suggests that possession of bronzes, and the control over the means to produce them, invested the Dian elite with the ability to acquire and maintain power and control over their own people and many of their neighbors. Among the Dian society, political and ritual developments brought about the rapid specialization of the metallurgical craft. Under the patronage of the Dian elite, metalworkers developed complicated methods of casting and joinery techniques to produce vibrant and detailed depictions of scenes of warfare, ritual, and other aspects of Dian life. Bronze uses of Yayoi bronzes appear to parallel Dian’s (see Robert E. Murowchick’s The Political and Ritual Significance of Bronze Production and Use in Ancient Yunnan). The Qiang have retained ceremonial ritual “armor” dance with weapons, and their women dancers still carry bronze bells that are sounded in time and rhythm to the male dancers’ drums. This folk dance is performed during the Qiang’s Zhuanshan Festival, when sorcerers call on the gods through a ceremonial drum dance. After the religious ceremony, people dance gaily to the sound of flutes, drums, and bells. Pieces of dough in the shape of the sun and half-moon are hung as offerings from an ox’s horns. Qiang women’s clothing items such as the collar, cuffs, sash, and shoes are often cross-stitched with circles, triangles, which are similar to that visible on some terracotta haniwa women’s clothing. For comparison, we take a look at how bronze and bronze bells were used in central China, particularly in Yunnan. Japanese bronze bells were almost certainly used in ritual or festive contexts, much like the context shown in the ancient mural below of tribal festivity in Yunnan, China.

Ancient mural of bronze bells used by a tribe in Yunnan, China

Ancient mural of bronze bells used by a tribe in Yunnan, China

According to “Light and Matter: the Perseid Meteor Shower” by the Symbol Reader blog:

“Bronze is an alloy of tin and copper. In alchemy, tin was related to the planet Jupiter while copper to the planet Venus. Bronze is the favoured metal of bell makers. The sound of the bell is a symbol of creative power. The bell is a sacred object suspended between heaven and earth, and its role is to deliver the message from above to below. The clapper inside the bell is its ‘tongue’ – used to communicate the message of heaven to the earth. In Tibetan Buddhism the sound of the bell is supposed to drive away evil spirits while the sound of the bell is the voice of Buddha teaching dharma.”

 On the origins of bell technology:

Dozens of bells were unearthed at Sanxingdui, Sichuan, particlarly the bronze shell and pomegranate flower-shaped bells captures
capture our imagination. According to A History of Chinese Science and Technology Vol. 1, p. 326,  Western musicologists and historians of science proposed that the ancient bronze bells in Sanxingdui were a product of Babylonian culture spreading eastward, since the form of bells originated in the plant’s flowers and fruits — the pomegranate was introduced in the Han Dynasty from the West. The round bell, however, unlike the indigenous local olive-shaped pottery bells, is known to have entered China with Buddhism, since the Qin and Han dynasties, most of the temple and court bells were round, and so the technology might have followed the path of Buddhism.  Perhaps, the bells were carried East by Sogdian traders or Scythian groups along the Silk Road, whose horses bore bell contraptions, and whose blacksmiths were able to cast the bells. Zhou Dynasty bells in Xincheng, Henan had relief depictions of serpents and dragons, suggestion their ritual uses to call down rain in supplication or placation of the dragons and serpents, respective masters of the watery deep as well as of the skies. They were used in musical accompaniment for ritual ceremonies and for less solemn occasions (see A bronze bell). In all likelihood, Yayoi bronze bells held the same agricultural ritual function (see photo below of diorama of Yayoi bronze ritual) mainland Chinese ritual practices, given the agricultural nature of the period and the known migrations from the mainland continent, and the importance of rain sorcery and supplications then. According to An age-old Chinese bell culture:

“From the very beginning the bronze bells in China were endowed with strong emotional coloring and cultural connotations. In his Explanation and Study of Principles of Composition of Characters, Xu Shen of the Eastern Han Dynasty said, “The zhong (bell) is the sound of the Autumn Equinox. All crops have been zhong (cultivated).” In Chinese, zhong (bell) and zhong (cultivate) are pronounced similarly, but in different tones. Harvests were the result of toil in our ancient agricultural country with its yellow soil. The stroke of the bell at a feast conveyed feelings of joy for the bumper harvest as well as the emotion of a man with a heavy heart. “


Many populations in East Asia were known to have valued the use of bells, the Amur Tungus peoples (eg the Udeges or Nanais, see NECEP database) was known for their bell belts.

Some ethnic (i.e. non-Han) groups in China had bells with ram’s horns attached at the top(see photo above), as ram’s horns throughout Turkic-Mongolic Eurasia symbolized fertility, the bell’s fertility-enhancing ritual functions can be inferred. Read more about the development of different types of Chinese bells here.

15 responses to “Treasure finds: Bronze bells and magical mirrors

  1. “decorated with patterns associated with rulers of Yayoi Japan” – what does this mean?

  2. Then who rendered their mirror fetishism to Himiko, The First Sovereign of Yamatai? Listen http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBqQOOaT4io
    More precisely, it was prersentday Khakasia rather than Presentday Tuva where Bronze Mirror fetishism was dominant.
    At that time only 2 countries in the world were collecting Bronze Mirrors, Tuva and Northern Kyushu, elsewhere producing and exporting that.
    Yamatai or Yamato was founded withthe paradigm of Bronze Mirror Culture and Ducks Myth circa 200 AD in valley Makimuku pref. Nara, Japan.

    • Bronze mirror culture could also have been transmitted equally by the Buryat Tibetan migrants and the shamans who came with them, or Mongol shamans (more here), or Chinese shamans for that matter since they shared the same shaman material culture of wearing bird discs, bird feathers drums, and others. But maybe the provenance of the bronze lead in the bronze mirrors in Japan are indicative of the most likely closest relationships between the owners of the bronzes and the manufacturers of the bronze mirrors. See Lead in Yayoi bronze mirrors from China, not Korea – Early Yayoi bronzes were of Yunnan and Hebei-Liaoning type; Late Yayoi bronzes were of northeastern Chinese provenance; Kofun bronze mirrors lead were of Hebei-Liaoning type as well as from southern Chinese sources…I see more of a Austronesian/Chinese/Mongolian connection here

  3. What all this means is that Koguryo, Fuyo, Yamatai were created in a wake of migration of nomadic pastoralist Altaians that occured in result of Motu Chanyu’s, the huns, expansion in Mongolia and Wudi’s conquest of Xiyu regions, without this event Koreans and Japanese would have been speaking Tungusic and Autronesian languages.

  4. Thank you.
    A stepping stone to Japan is
    http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Crown_of_Silla
    I’m gona take a lunch now, see you.

  5. Daeseongdong Tmber Grave Tumulus or Пазыникский Курган Дэсондон с срубной камерой, that is.

  6. Tenho um porta jóias de bronze que acredito ser do Japão, gostaria de saber com quem posso falar à respeito isso é muito importante para mim principalmente pela sua história que é mto importante para mim, porque vem de entes queridos que já se foram, um abraço…

  7. Hi,

    would you happen to know why the bronze mirrors (as photographed above and elsewhere) appear as but oxidized discs instead of actual mirrors? Also, do you know of any pictures of the triangular mirrors versus the disc ones only?

    Thank you 🙂
    Have a nice day.

    • The bronze mirrors are all very ancient and have been in the ground for centuries. The weather is hot and humid in Japan and the soil acidic so the mirrors are terribly corroded and have to be restored extensively. Some museums show the what the bronze mirrors would have looked like when new, and I was astonished to see how like a stainless steel mirror the reproduction piece looked like. “Corrosion of one form or another is the chief cause of the deterioration of metals, including statuary and architectural bronze. The degree of corrosion which occurs, and the corrosion by-products which result, are affected by several factors including bronze composition or formulation, environmental conditions and adjacent materials. While the composition of bronze does affect the rate of corrosion, it has been generally recognized that composition is one of the least significant factors in bronze deterioration. THE EXISTENCE OF SULPHUR AND CHLORINE IN THE ATMOSPHERE, IN THE PRESENCE OF MOISTURE, IS THE MOST SIGNIFICANT CAUSE OF BRONZE DETERIORATION” (Read more at Bronze, characteristics, uses and problems URL: http://w3.gsa.gov/web/p/hptp.nsf/0/6c8c800d5618e023852565c50054b2c6?OpenDocument)

  8. Also, if I may ask two other questions?

    I saw in your comments that you wrote “…shamans wore bird discs…” what is a ‘bird disc’? Is disc a synonym for mask or covering over the head?

    Also, why do they say “triangular-rimmed” mirrors when the mirrors are round and the rims do not have triangles on them (that I have seen in any pictures)?

    If you are able to respond, thank you, and if not, then thanks for the post! 🙂

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